• Ephraim Kishon

    , Central Zionist Archive ©
  • Ephraim Kishon

    , Central Zionist Archives ©
  • , Central Zionist Archives ©
  • ציור פורטרט של אפרים קישון שצייר "סאלח שבתי" (חיים טופול) , שאפרים היה קורא לו : היימקה.

    ציור פורטרט של אפרים קישון שצייר "סאלח שבתי" (חיים טופול) , שאפרים היה קורא לו : היימקה.

    מתוך ויקיפדיה, קרדיט: חיים טופול, ויקישיתוף. ברישיון cc-by-sa ©

The Birth of a Hebrew Voice: Israeli Satirist and Playwright Ephraim Kishon's Beginnings at Ulpan Etzion

The Hebrew-Hungarian author Ephraim Kishon (Ferenc Hoffmann, or his Hungarian name, Ferenc Kishhont), a world-renowned contemporary writer, began his career as a satirist in communist Hungary. At a young age, Kishon became an international icon who made Aliyah to Israel and graduated from Jerusalem's Ulpan Etzion, a project of The Jewish Agency. Kishon never forgot his days at Ulpan Etzion, and called that time of his life his “nezirut”, his vow of asceticism. There, in 1949, he became proficient in Hebrew, learning its in’s and out’s until he could write new Hebrew words and coin new phrases with the remarkable fluency of a native.

Ephraim Kishon unwittingly created a news-buzz over Israel's security situation as the night editor at the newspaper "Uj Kelet" (a Zionist Jewish Newspaper in Hungarian) – he had simply not understood the censor who asked him in fluent Hebrew not to publish the number of guns in a certain Israeli settlement. The newspaper editor Dr. Erno Marton then turned to Kishon and told him: "it's about time, son, that you learn Hebrew properly, and become a Hebrew writer."  

And so, the new oleh (immigrant) with a heavy Hungarian accent was sent to Israel to study Hebrew in Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem. Kishon joined the Ulpan’s first class, right after Israel's War of Independence, in 1949. The institute became a legend; it is the first and oldest Israeli Ulpan, an incubator for many leading and prominent Israelis throughout the years.

"I could never fully pay back my teachers at this institution, Ulpan Etzion," Kishon later wrote in his 1993 biography. At Ulpan Etzion, Kishon learned to read and write Hebrew so proficiently that he became a bestselling author in his time.

When Kishon was asked by his biographer, journalist Yaron London, how his days at the first class of Ulpan Etzion were, he answered:

"A chronicle of a monk. During an entire year I lived in a little room, almost empty. It had a closet, a table and an Agency bed. I became an oleh once again".

Yaron: "You told me that had you known how hard it would be for you to learn Hebrew, you would never have started."

Kishon: "I didn’t do it from joy, but out of desperation. I looked at my editorial staff at Uj Kelet, highly talented and esteemed people in Transylvania, who are withering away with the years like onions, begging for someone to translate their writings into the language of the Jewish State, and when once in a while a horrid translation sees light in turn for a sharp payment, it does not create any news-buzz…I needed to save myself from the destiny of an eternal immigrant".

As Kishon tells of his days in Ulpan Etzion, using names of cities fallen in the War of Independence, it sounds humorous –using Kishon-esque made up words

Yaron: "Let’s quickly go back to Ulpan Etzion, okay?"

Kishon: "Fine, though I really do not have anything to tell you. A prison is a prison. Eighteen hours of studying each day for a year. My wife, Eva Hawa Klamer, I would see sometimes. My rabbi and professor, Yitzhak Livni, an authority on the Hebrew language at the Linguistics department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, saw my talent and gave me private lessons. I dedicated my first Hebrew book, Thousands of Gadia and Gadia, to this wonderful dear man, and to his memory, for the most important present I received in my life, the ability to write once again.”

Yaron: "How long was it before you finished Ulpan that the Habima theatre staged your first script?"

Ephraim: "About two years. In 1951 I was in Ulpan, and in 1953 they staged 'His Reputation Precedes Him'.*”     

Kishon would go on to later become one of Israel’s highest acclaimed writers, starting a regular satirical column in the basic Hebrew daily publication, HaOmer, just after two years after making Aliyah. From 1952, for over thirty years, he wrote the column “Chad Gadya” in the daily paper Ma’ariv, quickly becoming one of Israel’s most popular columnists; his 1964 musical comedy film 'Sallah Shabati'  gained him international fame with an Oscar nomination. His extraordinary inventiveness, both in the use of language and the creation of character, was applied also to the writing of innumerable skits for theatrical revues.

Collections of his humorous writings have appeared in Hebrew and have been translated into 38 languages. Among the English translations are Look back Mrs. Lot (1960), Noah’s Ark, Tourist Class (1962), The Seasick Whale (1965), and two books on the Six-Day War and its aftermath, So Sorry We Won (1967), and Woe to the Victors (1969). Two collections of his plays have also appeared in Hebrew: Shemo Holekh Lefanav (1953) and Ma´arkhonim (1959). Kishon was the recipient of many awards, including two Oscar nominations for screenwriting, several Golden Globe awards, the Bialik Prize for Literature and the esteemed Israel Prize in 2002 for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and the State of Israel. Kishon died in 2005 at the age of 80.

Check out Ulpan Etzion today.

25 Mar 2014 / 23 Adar II 5774 0
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Chen Mor is the Hebrew marketing and communications content writer at The Jewish Agency for Israel

Chen Mor has enjoyed working for The Jewish Agency for the past five years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations and Central and Eastern European Studies and is currently working on her Masters Thesis in Conflict Research, Management and Resolution from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.